The Strange Attraction of Books that Make Us Cry by Iona Grey
Like most of us, I like to think I’m a fairly decent person – or at least at the right end of the spectrum between saint and Donald Trump. I know I could probably do better, but I do try to recycle assiduously (tearing the little windows out of envelopes and eviscerating Pringles tubes), support the odd crowdfunder, not use my mobile in the quiet carriage on trains and let cars out in front of me in traffic jams. I can’t bear cruelty to animals. I don’t see myself as the type to get satisfaction out of making people cry.
And yet, there lies the shameful truth. I don’t troll strangers on the internet or tut at young mums dealing with tantruming toddlers in the biscuit aisle of Sainsbury’s, but whenever I get a review or a message from a reader saying my book made them sob, I’m always halfway through my mental air-punching happy-dance before rationality taps me on the shoulder and says ‘what is the MATTER with you? Are you an actual PSYCHOPATH?’
I’m not – truly I’m not (at least I don’t think I am…) but it’s complicated. There are a whole lot of taboos around crying, and we’re conditioned to view it in a pretty negative light. Perhaps it’s Britishness that makes shy away from it – from being seen doing it, from witnessing others doing it, and certainly from causing it. And yet many of us, who are stiff upper lip types in all other areas of our lives, find ourselves irresistibly drawn to books and films that have us wracked with silent sobs, as I’m all too aware, having sobbed through the last ten minutes of the Downton Abbey movie last week. The thing is, emerging afterwards, stuffing soggy tissues back into my bag, I felt strangely better than I had when I went in two hours previously. Lighter perhaps (in spite of the popcorn.) Calmer.
There’s something oddly soothing about a good old weep. Aristotle described the concept of catharsis in the third century BC, and numerous slightly more up-to-date studies have been carried out which show that a great big ugly cry has lots of benefits to health and wellbeing. On a physical level (a quick google reveals) shedding tears is an effective mechanism for relieving stress. ‘Emotional tears’ (as opposed to those that appear when you jab a mascara wand in your eye) actually contain stress hormones – and it’s far better to have those running down your cheeks than circulating through your bloodstream. It also releases oxytocin, prolactin and endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood-enhancers (I’m sure I’ve read that eating chocolate has the same effect…) and triggers something called the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and helps us to sleep better. Win!
Now I’m no scientist, but I am a longstanding member of the Ten-Tissue Weepie Book Group and the Waterproof Mascara Cinema Club, so should be well qualified to explain non-sciencey reasons why we might enjoy having our hearts put through a fictional wringer on a regular basis.
My theory is that there’s something about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – even fictional ones – that brings us closer to ourselves. Empathising with the emotions of another can somehow help us to process our own messy, complicated feelings and understand them better. We overlay ourselves on that person on the page, projecting those we love onto their loved ones, and that can take us back – for a little while at least – to someone we’ve lost. Or give us renewed gratitude and appreciation for someone we can still cross the room to hug.
And this is the magic of reading. It removes us from the grim reality of the commute to work, but at the same time reconnects us with our common humanity. It’s essentially a solitary activity and yet, spending time with made-up characters in an imaginary world can remind us that we’re not alone. (Although anyone turning the last few pages of Me Before You on a crowded train might find themselves wishing that they were…) And that’s before we’ve even lifted our head from the page to text a friend, take to Twitter, or perhaps even fire off a message to an author and make that human connection. ‘You’ve got to read this…’ ‘Oh wow…’ ‘I’ve just finished this book and I had to say…’
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’m relieved to discover I’m not a psychopath. (I did an online quiz, just to make sure.) It turns out I’m just an ordinary, everyday book loving human and believer in magic. Phew!
Love Iona xx
The Glittering Hour publishes paperback on 17th October.